Friday, April 28, 2006

Things to do in Sylhet

Sylhet is my hometown, although I left at 9 and am a little estranged.

Here are some nice places that I discovered (or rediscovered):

a) Area around parjatan motel - nice spot, lots of nice views from a hill top on Airport road
b) Shahjalal University - pretty campus about 10 km N of town
c) Zakaria Resort - near Khadimnagar, a hilltop resort with 360 views and entertainment park including ferris wheel and toy train
d) Hazrat Shahjalal's tomb - he was an amazing holy man, worth a visit if you are religious
e) MC College (aka Sylhet Govt College) another nice campus
f) Forest Dept Land - some nice forests on north-east side of town, near Baluchar. There was a picnic spot but it may have shut down.
g) Tea gardens - Lakkatura and Malnichhara are very close to town. Bicycling possible on the trails (though I have not tried it.)

If you like shopping, Manipuri patterned saris etc in Police Line.

In summary, places just a little on the outskirts are nice. Avoid the center, specially Zindabazar and Bandar, unless you like crowds and traffic jams.

One view from top of Zakaria Resort:

View to the East from Zakaria:

Stadium under construction near Lakkatura:

Storm Lilly:

What tractors were really made for:

Another type of Lilly:

Bye Scott

This has nothing to do with Bangladesh but since I worked at Sun for 15 years, I have some opinions about Scott McNealy who just gave up the CEO position.

My favorite quote from Scott was simply: "Character matters". He is extremely strong on personal integrity. I think this was the main reason why he hates Microsoft. He saw them as breaking the law (which was the verdict of the Federal anti-trust case against Microsoft.)

I know some personal details of Scott's life that I don't want to go into (my kids went to the same school as his) - except to say that in these details emerged glimpses of a life lived as if character mattered.

Scott made Sun from zero into a 20 Billion dollar company. It is extremely unlikely that without Java and other Sun innovations, the Internet would be what it is today.

His weakness was refusing to do large layoffs when the bubble burst. His mistake was holding on to people who were less than competent for their job levels (and some of them are still at Sun unfortunately.)

But boy does he have vision! Scott sees the (tech) future more clearly than any other tech luminary I have seen or known.

A Bus Trip

In recent years, bus service in Bangladesh has improved. Recently I travelled Dhaka-Sylhet-Dhaka by private bus. I was amazed at the high quality.

Planning the trip, I called various bus companies and Shohag appeared the most courteous and professional. Yes, they had many busses from Dhaka to Sylhet, what time would I like to leave, etc. Then the surprising question, "Would you like to travel by Business Class or Economy Class sir?" The prices were Tk 600 ($9) and 400 ($6) respectively so I said why not, this is the time to splurge.

When I got to the "terminal" at my "reporting time" and on to my assigned seat A1, a comfortably wide seat in front of the bus with at least 3 feet of legroom, I found a small pillow that appeared stuck on the seatback, uncomfortably behind by top vertebrum. I could not dislodge it and so asked for help. No problem: an ingenious sliding mechanism, using sewn-in ribbons, allowed the pillow to be slid up to behind the seatback.

In addition to the reclining seatback I also had a foot rest that popped out, an airline-like swivelling LCD TV (Business class exclusive), a massage system (which I could not get to work) and headphone audio system (which was also dicey.) Like planes, there was a mesh pocket attached to the back of the seat in front (in my case, on a panel in the front.) There were reading lights and individually controllable AC vents.

A "flight attendant" accompanied us and made several excruciatingly polite announcements in Bangla. My favorite one was when we arrived at our only break and pit-stop when he said "I hope my dear passengers will be able to satisfy all their needs at this stop." As in go to the bathroom.

Oh yeah, the bus had no bathroom. That was the only drawback. But that one stop it made halfway into the 5-hour trip was enough. Of course if you have diarrhoea you are dead.

Shortly after starting the attendant stuffed bottled water, a Cola can, a packet of crackers and two AlpenLiebe candies (Indian version of Werther's) into the mesh pocket.

The attendant also sprayed air-freshener a few times up and down the bus, near the floor. So, no odor problems.

There was a 15"(?) TV mounted on the top where they showed Bangladeshi programs. I enjoyed a program showing the "best of" Close-Up talent contest (though the headset jacks needed to be prodded often.) They also showed Mr. Bean episodes plus some dramas. But no Hindi stuff. However, the LCD monitor in Business Class had a second channel where they showed Bollywood.

All the Shohag employees were smartly dressed in beige shirts, ties and black pants. Most were polite but good salespeople at the same time.

The ride was ok, although the driver was quite generous with his honking (loud and shrill) and with tailgating and swerving around vehicles in front. The horn of this monster bus has a special sound that warns everyone in front to get out of the way.

The trip to Sylhet, estimated to be 4.5 hours, took five. On the way back the journey took 7.5 hours because we were stuck at Jatrabari (entrance to Dhaka) for about 3 hours. (Ugh. How I hate Jatrabari.)

Before the AC busses, passengers had suffered mightily over the years because of the difficulty in obtaining tickets for Biman or Railways (usually graft-related.) Now Biman and Rail tickets are no problem, because competition from busses have straightened them out.

Short of actually flying, these busses have emulated (with success) airline service every step of the way. In addition to the cabin service, they issue airline-like tickets and a check-in service with luggage tags for checking in larger bags into the bus belly.

Years ago, when my wife and I were travelling in Mexico, we were surprised by their assigned seating busses and polite service and wondered by Bangladeshi busses could not provide better service. No more - world-class bus service has come to Bangladesh.

I congratulate those who made these high-quality busses happen. The in-depth thought to every bit of customer experience shows in the meticulous execution.

Now, please tell your drivers to drive a little more carefully on the highway, ok? Oh yeah, what's with the ugly pink color?

Here is the bus:

And here is the view from inside:

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hartal = Bike-to-work day?

Today is a hartal day so I biked to work. It's about 6 km from my house to the office and it took me 30 minutes.

Since the streets were reasonably empty, I breathed only an acceptable amount of fumes. The lowlight was when I got stuck behind one of those ancient "murir tin" busses. That stuff coming out of their exhaust is noxious!

I noticed at the outset the rear tire was low on air, so I tried to find one of those roadside stands where the rickshaws get their tires pumped. The first one I found had to use an adapter of sorts to fit his pump into the tire of the Schwinn hybrid. When he finished and disengaged the adapter, he must have let out some air, because the tire did not look that much better. While I was biking and searching for another pump at the roadside stands, I saw many shoe-polishers, couple of "juta-shelais" (cobblers) and even one guy who had laid out a shaving brush and assorted shaving paraphernelia. Eventually I found another pump, but he said he could not do it, and I needed a "car pump". I asked a Rickshawallah, is there a pump place nearby, to which he nodded and said over there, pointing to nowhere in particular.

And so it went. But I got to work ok.

The only place with signs of trouble was in Mohakhali where some serious looking men were sitting in the middle of the street, wearing punjabis, and looking solemn. They were surrounded by the police, who looked like they were protecting the sit-inners. About 5 yards down the road, there were broken bricks and rocks on the street. Further on, saw broken glass so some car or bus must have been attacked.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Curse of Bollywood

The noted Bengali author and columnist Dr. Zafar Iqbal wrote on Bollywood influence in his column "Shada-shidhey Katha." He said something to the effect that "up to some years ago I could boast never having seen a Hindi movie, but now I cannot. I have to travel by bus from Sylhet to Dhaka, and they show these movies in the busses where you are a captive audience."

It is extremely unfortunate that despite our rich and varied culture, we in Bangladesh have allowed Bollywood to take such a hold of our imagination. Every day on my way to work I have to see pictures of Karina Kapur and Ashwariya Rai on Pepsi and Lux advertisements. (Aren't there pretty girls in this country?) I have to hear Hindi songs blaring from stores and cars. And I think about all the bus passengers being subjected to nasty doses of Hindi movies.

What's your problem, you ask? Hindi movies are great entertainment. Let the masses enjoy.

First, there is the cultural imperialism issue. We support Hindi songs and movies at the expense of our own songs and movies. So the revenues, the adulation, and the enouragement - all of that goes to Bollywood instead of local talent. In the meantime more of our local traditions face extinction every day.

But my second, stronger objection is along aesthetic lines, not patriotic (or xenophobic) ones. Bollywood movies appeal to our cheap sentiments. They aim to give us instant gratification. They require no thought, reflection or spiritual involvement from us. Instead of raising our spirit and intellect higher, they bring them lower. Contrast this against the gems of Bangla culture: the sublime spirituality of Baul songs; Tagore's veneration of nature; Nazrul's poems of angry youth; the powerful (and sometimes humorous) plays that are staged in Dhaka; even the bantering, playful songs that Momtaz belts out on lost and cheated love. These give us reason to think, to feel and often to transcend our day-to-day realities and raise us to a higher plain.

Hindi movies, on the other hand, are like an overdose of chocolate that give us constipation the next day. They cheapen us, debase us as human beings.

The formulaic predictability of Hindi movies reminds me of Harry Chapin's immortal comments about a Country and Western song: "Next the song talked about a truck because it had already covered motherhood." So the Hindi movie must address the love triangle and the twisted villain because it has already addressed the separated-at-birth-but-evil twin brother.

It is extremely important to remember that the people who create Hindi movies are very hard-working, creative people. The irony is that their creation forces us to see the world as a dumbed-down, hero-zero place, stifling our own creativity. You know that song "Margaritaville?" "Living on sponge cake/watching the sun bake" etc. Jimmy Buffett's song creates visions of a laid-back life on the beaches of the Caribbean, drenched in alcohol, whiling away the sunny days. Guess what, Buffett is an extremely creative workaholic who sometimes works 20-hour days to create his music.

Similarly Bollywood honchos, themselves very creative and energetic people, create trash to stupify the masses.

One ray of hope I see comes from watching the Dhaka crowds participating in Pohela Boishakh cultural events, the long lines I saw waiting to enter the Ekushey Boimela, and the immense popularity of local bands who write their own Bangla songs (usually with far richer meaning than Hindi movie songs) or do remixes of classic Bangla folks songs. Although Hindi culture has infiltrated Bangladesh, one hopes that the infiltration has stopped growing and may be reversed soon.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Pohela Boishakh

Today is Pohela Boishakh, the beginning of the Bengali Year.

Many changes since the last time I spent Pohela Boishakh in Bangladesh. Most of it for the better: lots of parties ("functions"), women wearing attractive cotton saris on the streets (why can't they come out more often? Sometimes Dhaka seems like a city of men!), and a strong sense of happiness and cultural unity all over.

The best part of the day was when we were driving in front of a Garments factory. Suddenly a few hundred young women, workers at the factory, poured out of the gates, all wearing the same stunningly beautiful red-and-white sari. The saris were a gift from the company. What a breathless spectacle.

Back in my days,
We did not greet people with "shubho noboborsho" - it sounds too artificial
We did not eat Panta Bhat and Ilish Machh - this one is a shopkeeper's trick
We did not jam up all the main roads of the town heading off to the parties

To Pohela Boishakh I say "My, you have grown! Just like the rest of the country."

Monday, April 10, 2006


Birds have a larger presence in my life here than they had in the US.

For example, during my morning run today, I saw no less than 10 varieties: Shalik (why do they hang around the roads anyways?), Doyel (the national bird with signature white stripes), Fingey (which is, confusingly enough, called "Fesa" by the locals around here; in flight, its tail makes a long V), playful Chorui (sparrow), ugly but respected (because they eat trash) Darkak and Patikak (two varieties of crow), the ever-elegant Bulbuli, as well as 2-3 types I could not recognize. Just when I thought I had my fill a large Chil (eagle?) landed on top of a Debdaru tree.

Every morning, way-y-y before dawn, the birds start singing loud and clear - perhaps more so than a sleepy person might like.

I do miss the hummingbirds that used to buzz around the berries growing on the holly tree in my Los Altos backyard. As well as those black squirrels, prevalent in Palo Alto and Los Altos, that some claimed were the result of a Stanford genetics experiment gone awry.

In any case, Bangladesh must be a heaven for birders. Good tourist sell, methinks.

Sure Looks Like we are on a Roll

Looking good so far. Tomorrow should be suspenseful.
Whatever the outcome of the match, I doubt we will be
hearing the Aussies dissing Bd cricketers anytime soon.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Are we on a roll?

I am not a great cricket fan, but this made my heart sing

Urm, aren't these the same Aussies who dissed us some months ago?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Cover of Time Magazine

A positive story on Bangladesh on the cover of Time (Asia) magazine.

Great story, sweet antidote to Henry "bottomless" Kissinger and his ilk.

My only reservation is that the story pays too much attention to the politicians and not enough to the entrepreneurs who are the real force behind the progress.

BTW, I found out about this cover story from the News From Bangladesh site